How many ads are too many ads?

IPA Media Futures Group Chair Tom George comments on ITV's and Channel 4's call for longer ad breaks.

Following ITV and Channel 4's recent call for an increase in ad minutage, IPA Media Futures Group Chair Tom George asks how many ads are too many ads?

This used to be easy for the IPA to answer in 2007 and again in 2014 when it came to television viewing. The answer was “no more than seven minutes in the hour/eight in prime time”. It believed that any more would negatively impact an ad’s effectiveness because of what it phrased as “an increase in clutter and a reduction in viewer enjoyability”. In other words, any more, and people start getting irritated.

Today, the advertising landscape is much more complicated. And with declining ad revenues it is easy to understand why ITV and Channel 4 are reportedly calling for an increase in advertising minutes to nearer the maximum of 20% of viewing time (12 minutes per hour) as proposed in the Audio Visual Media Services Directive currently under consultation.

The IPA’s Media Futures Group (MFG), which I head up, believes an increase in advertising minutage to these over-generous levels is not the solution. And that the industry needs to take this moment to pause and look at the whole picture, rather than focussing on parts of it.

As Ray Snoddy rightly pointed out in his MediaTel article "Irritate viewers at your peril", we should not be looking to emulate the US model of more ads. As he says, “American network television is close to unwatchable to British eyes because of the frequency and intrusive nature of the advertising.”

So let’s look at what we know.

Trust in advertising is at an all-time low. And, as the AA’s report Arresting the decline of public trust in UK Advertising – a key output from the AA’s Trust Working Group that IPA Director General Paul Bainsfair co-chairs with Phil Smith of ISBA – shows, excessive ad bombardment and excessive frequency are the two main factors that are fuelling the decline.

We also know from multiple sets of data that subscription channels are on the rise because consumers are looking for appealing content to view when, and how they want it. We also know that some of the broadcasters are looking at ad-free subscription services. For example, this autumn we will see the launch of ITV and the BBC’s Britbox. This is being promoted as the place for original content and box sets. Its other big selling point is that it promises to be ad-free. I suspect, and I am probably not alone in thinking this, that some viewers will now expect and want a viewing experience free of advertising. And they, particularly younger viewers, will find it increasingly intrusive. With Britbox we have the first blurring of the lines between accepted commercial television practices and paying the licence fee.

Are broadcasters unwittingly nudging viewers into a future without many/any advertisements?

We know from our own data that some viewers want to avoid ads when they are engrossed in content. The 2018 TouchPoints survey shows that nearly 60% of adults and 15-34s (at 62%) are pausing programmes so they can fast forward through the ads.

Despite this, when you ask consumers about whether they like ads, which the industry does on a regular basis, most people will admit to enjoying a fair few. They are able to recall which ones and, sometimes act them out. They are part of the zeitgeist. A few people will also know that ads fund many of the programmes they enjoy watching. Some people also admit to finding them informative.

There are still compelling reasons to have advertising because you can make the case for it being an essential component of a free market economy which thrives on freedom of choice and a competitive marketplace.

So this brings me back to the question of how many ads are too many ads?

The IPA’s MFG believes that the liberalisation of scheduling of UK TV advertising minutes to AVMS levels should not be encouraged.

We support the notion of a unified approach ‘across all channels’ because the limits placed on broadcast advertising minutes in the hour is not standard across all audio visual channels.

We know that over the last decade the environment and market for AV advertising has been changing dramatically – viewers are able to watch television content (and advertising) across multiple devices. And while there are controls placed on advertising quantity on linear TV broadcast, no such controls exist for BVOD (Broadcaster Video on Demand). Add to that, the market for online AV advertising has increased dramatically with the rise of the large tech platforms. So it seems anachronistic to us that these platforms are not subject to the same levels of control placed on broadcast TV.

As an industry we need to look at how this approach is affecting consumers. Because the likelihood is that as the years pass and consumer media habits continue to evolve, we will see more subscription services offering pure content. And we could be tracking less consumer engagement.

These considerations are currently being reviewed by the IPA’s Media Futures Group.

So let’s not go for more of what consumers don’t want. Let’s make watching UK advertising the good experience it is supposed to be.

Tom George, Chair of the IPA’s Media Futures Group and CEO, GroupM UK

Last updated 21 January 2022